The next trauma came after successfully negotiating the Moscow metro with my considerable luggage, a task I had been dreading. On boarding the Trans Manchurian Not So Express it transpired that the details on my train ticket did not match up with those in my passport. This elicited over twenty minutes of doom, gloom and headshaking from the dour moustaschioed provodnick (carriage attendant) while I sniffled pathetically at his side, but thankfully he eventually decided to brusquely wave me on.
The journey was a completely different experience from the one I took three years ago. This time the Russian steppes were deep in snow and reminiscent of scenes from Doctor Zhivago, but without the starving Russian peasants chasing after the train. However, inside the carriages the temperatures were more tropical than arctic, and the well prepared Russians promptly changed into shorts or jogging pants. It was slightly surreal to be sweltering in temperatures such as recorded below when there was snyet and lyot (snow and ice) flashing past the window.
Whereas last time I was in a carriage full of westerners, this time I spent the whole trip across Russia struggling to communicate with the help of a phrase book – but at least my Russian vocabulary now extends beyond ‘vodka’, even if is only to say ‘ Ya nye gavaryu paruski’ (I don’t speak Russian). I started off sharing a compartment with three Russian men, one of whom drank himself into a stupor on the first day, during which time he also rather worryingly staggered off and disappeared for about three hours. Just when I thought he must have fallen off the train and be a frozen corpse by the side of the track, he reappeared, slightly more sober but still clutching a bottle of beer. But by the end of the trip I had the luxury of a carriage to myself. Below are Svetlana, Irina, Tatiana and Mariana, the jolly ladies next door who invited me over for vodka and Russian sausage, and took me under their wing at the Chinese border stop, when I joined them in town to become of the ‘babuschkas that lunch’ brigade.
Passing Lake Baikal was an eagerly awaited thrill, as instead of a blue expanse of water fringed with ripples and dotted with little fishing boats, the whole lake was completely frozen solid. But people were still fishing through holes in the ice, huddled under windbreaks – some had driven their 4x4 vehicles miles out onto the lake. I am now staying with friends David and Caroline in their superb flat in central Beijing – it was utter bliss to have a hot shower and cup of tea on arriving (which to have first?) and crash out in a comfortable bed. Yesterday I went with Harry Tse and Peng Wenchao for a most congenial meeting with the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to report on our progress, and this morning Peng helped me sort out a super duper new dongle for my laptop.